About 13,000 people are kept in slavery in the UK. Amy Romer’s book The Dark Figure* reveals the terrifying ordinariness of the sites of their captivity
In 2013, a 22-year-old Hungarian woman responded to an online ad for a babysitting job in London and, after a telephone interview, was offered the post. When she arrived in Budapest to travel to London, she was met by three men who confiscated her mobile, drove her to Slovakia and forced her on to a coach bound for Manchester.
There was no babysitting job. Instead, the woman had been “bought” for £3,500 by a Pakistani man and was told to prepare for marriage. After being held captive at various Manchester addresses, she finally alerted the police from a house in Cunliffe Street, Chorley, where she was rescued and later repatriated home.
There is nothing to indicate “slavery next door” about Cunliffe Street, a nondescript terrace of brick houses. And that’s exactly what Amy Romer, a 30-year-old photographer originally from Exeter, set out to show in her book The Dark Figure*, which juxtaposes images of seemingly innocuous, everyday British locations – country lane, suburban cul-de-sac, muddy farm – with descriptions of the crimes of modern-day slavery that have taken place there. The result is a quietly powerful challenge to how we identify slavery as a society – do we still only envision shackles and transatlantic ships? – and an uncomfortable reminder of how little we know about what is happening behind our neighbours’ closed doors.
The idea that something is being hidden gives the pictures an eerie sense
Roughly 13,000 people are believed to be living in some form of modern-day slavery in the UK today – a statistic known as “the dark figure” because it is the estimated number of cases that have not yet come to light. In 2015, when she began the project, Romer had never heard the term “modern-day slavery”; it was a conversation around the family dinner table while she was still a photography student at Falmouth University that sparked her curiosity. The Modern Slavery Act had just been passed and her mother’s partner, who works for Devon and Cornwall police, “was talking about how police were moving their focus from petty street crime towards modern slavery investigations”, says Romer. “We have such a strong idea of what ‘slavery’ is historically – you just can’t picture that [happening] today. Immediately I wanted to know what it was and what it looked like in the UK.”
Even without the captions, Romer’s photographs evoke a haunting stillness. Some of the landscapes include main thoroughfares and popular byways, but nearly all the images are void of people; in every shot, it feels as if we are peering into a ghost town, waiting for the protagonists – or the action – to arrive.
“The fact that there are no people makes you look a little bit closer and invites you to wonder what’s happening in these images and why they’re there,” says Romer. “It’s the idea that something’s being hidden [that] gives them an eerie sense, and which is interesting, because the [locations also] look so normal and so like the town that you grew up in, or where I grew up.”
Though the term “slavery next door” may sound exaggerated, one of the Plymouth addresses Romer photographed happened to be just one street over from a flat she lived in; and in the book’s foreword, Lancashire-born social justice educator Pete Brook writes that the Chorley house to which the Hungarian woman was trafficked was “adjacent to cafes in which I’ve sat and pubs in which I’ve drunk”.
“It really homes in on the idea that slavery is happening on our doorstep,” says Romer.
The Dark Figure* began as Romer’s third-year project at university but today the Home Office, local councils and British police use it as a training resource to help identify and raise awareness about modern-day slavery in its various forms. “The police actually uploaded a few of my photos on all their screen savers,” says Romer, “so whenever they log into their computers, they see my images. It’s kind of crazy but really cool.”
The book was never intended for the coffee table anyway, says Romer, who self-funded a free poster in the book (the Bristol image, pictured above) about slavery in the UK. “I don’t want this to be a niche documentary photo book. I want this project to teach. I want it to raise awareness,” she says. “I’m asking people to put up the poster in their local community centre or somewhere that it’ll get seen. I want [people] to actually learn something from it.”
Metropolitan police from the Human Trafficking Unit arrested 73-year-old Aravindan Balakrishnan and his wife, 67-year-old Chanda Pattni, at their residential address in Brixton. They were investigated for slavery and domestic servitude.
Three women had escaped from the same property a month earlier, having been held against their will for more than 30 years. Aishah Wahab, a 69-year-old Malaysian woman, and Josephine Herivel, a 57-year-old Irishwoman, met Balakrishnan, known as Comrade Bala, in London through a shared political ideology. He was the former Maoist leader of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought. Rosie Davies, a 30-year-old British woman, had spent her whole life in servitude under Balakrishnan.
The women were not physically restrained, but held by subjection to brainwashing, emotional abuse and physical abuse. Police were tipped off from a charity supporting victims of forced marriage, after receiving a phone call from the women, who had been watching the ITV documentary Forced to Marry.
Balakrishnan was convicted of child cruelty, false imprisonment, four counts of rape, six counts of indecent assault and two counts of assault. Chanda Pattni, had been released without charge in 2014.
Balakrishnan was sentenced to 23 years in prison in January 2016.
The discovery of the remains of a body in a garden shed near Bamfurlong Lane triggered a year-long investigation, including a five-month surveillance operation in 2010 of the Connors family’s traveller sites.
The body was identified as that of Christopher Nicholls, who had been working for the Connors for three years and had been reported missing by his parents in 2005. He had been struck by a car in 2004.
Gloucestershire Police carried out warrants at three properties in Gloucestershire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Nineteen vulnerable people were found living in squalid conditions at Beggers Roost caravan park in Cheltenham, subject to assault, theft of benefits and exploitation.
Survivor Mark Ovenden reported that he was heading to his local soup kitchen in Bournemouth when a white van pulled over ahead of him. The driver approached him and offered him a job near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. He was taken to Beggers Roost and subjected to modern slavery for the following two years.
Some of the rescued men had been kept at the Connors property for as long as 30 years and, having been institutionalised, did not recognise themselves as victims.
Five members of the Connors family were charged with offences involving the serious mistreatment of people who, because of their personal circumstances, had little option but to remain with the family. All five were found guilty of conspiracy to require a person to perform forced or compulsory labour between April 2010 and March 2011 and are facing a maximum sentence of 14 years.
Police arrested 53-year-old Jurate Grigelyte at her property in Easton, Bristol, after a school raised concerns about the welfare of a six-year-old boy, who was discovered to be the son of a victim of human trafficking and forced labour, working under Grigelyte.
Grigelyte trafficked Lithuanian nationals to the UK with the promise of good employment and accommodation, but instead would lock victims inside cramped, squalid properties, only allowing them to enter and leave through a window.
The victims, many of whom spoke little to no English, worked for Grigelyte’s charity bag business collecting donations and sorting through clothing. They were transported around the south-west in vans with no seats or windows. A typical working day lasted from 5am to 6pm. Grigelyte promised workers £25 per day, but would deduct money for rent, travel and various fines, often leaving workers debt-bonded, with no money for food.
Debt bondage is the world’s most widespread form of slavery. A person becomes a bonded labourer when their labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan. The victim is then tricked or trapped into working for very little or no pay, to repay debts their employer says they owe. Often, the victim’s identification is taken and bank cards are controlled, limiting any hope of freedom.
Grigelyte was sentenced to three years in prison after admitting to 10 charges of facilitating entry into the UK with a view to exploiting labour, 10 charges of human trafficking and one count of forced labour.
A gang of three brothers, their uncle and two women were found guilty of 55 serious offences, some of which had lain undetected for almost 20 years. Fifteen vulnerable girls, one as young as 11, were subjected to acts of sexual violence between 1987 and 2003 including rape, forced prostitution, indecent assault and false imprisonment.
Karen MacGregor was sentenced to 13 years for conspiracy to procure a child for prostitution, false imprisonment, and conspiracy to rape. MacGregor was a high-profile campaigner on behalf of abused children. In 2013, she founded KinKids, a community support group for kinship carers. MacGregor boasted that KinKids had helped families affected by the scandal. She had persuaded Rotherham council, local Labour MP John Healey and other local organisations to support KinKids in the wake of heightened investigation into cases of child abuse in Rotherham.
She had been luring vulnerable girls to her home in Walker Street, which was described by one of the victims as akin to the Hansel and Gretel fairytale. There, she would groom them before pimping them out to earn their keep.
One of her victims described how MacGregor was a motherly figure, who had taken her under her wing at a difficult time in her life and treated her like a daughter. Another victim recalled how within days of arriving, MacGregor had plied her with vodka to the point of unconsciousness and she had woken up to find herself being sexually assaulted.
Since 2016, 33 men and one woman in this case have been imprisoned for rape, false imprisonment, sexual intercourse with a girl under 13, and indecent assault, for a total of 445 years and three months.
The conduct of more than 60 officers from South Yorkshire police who had dealt with the victims across the 20-year period is now under investigation. It is the largest Independent Police Complaints Commission inquiry since the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster.
An inspection of Rotherham council found it was “not fit for purpose” after an independent inquiry into its handling of child sexual exploitation reports since 1997. The inquiry identified a culture of “bullying, sexism ... and misplaced ‘political correctness’”, along with a history of covering up information and silencing whistleblowers. The leader of the council, Paul Lakin, resigned, and the government replaced its elected officers with a team of five commissioners, including one tasked specifically with looking at children’s services.
The authorities were alerted when a 20-year-old male trafficking victim contacted a charity, revealing he had been the victim of offences committed in 2011. More victims soon came forward, and others were identified. Convictions were made against Hungarian traffickers Janos Orsos and Ferenc Illes, who had been providing workers to Kozee Sleep, a bed factory that supplied retailers including John Lewis, Dunelm and Next.
Company owner Mohammed Rafiq and two of his employees were charged with conspiracy to facilitate travel within the UK for exploitation. Rafiq was the first owner of a UK company to be charged with human trafficking offences.
Workers supplied to Kozee Sleep were forced to live with up to 42 men in a two-bedroom house on Batley Field Hill, and were found to be surviving on scraps of food. The men would work for up to 20 hours a day and were paid as little as £10 a week.
Janos Orsos pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic a person into the UK for exploitation, blackmail and converting criminal property. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Ferenc Illes pleaded guilty to conspiracy to traffic a person within the UK for exploitation. He was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
Mohammed Rafiq was found guilty of conspiracy to traffic and was sentenced to two years and three months in prison. He pleaded not guilty.
A young Hungarian woman was captured and trafficked to the UK after responding to an advert for a babysitting job. She was sold to a Pakistani man for £3,500, and held at various addresses in Gorton, Longsight and Levenshulme in Manchester, before being taken to Chorley, where she was able to alert police.
Bartolomej Sivak, the organiser of the operation, was jailed for four years for trafficking and conspiracy to facilitate a breach of immigration law. His assistant, Rana Yousaf, who assisted in moving of the victim, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to facilitate a breach of immigration law and was sentenced to 20 months; and his fixer, Nasar Khan, to three years. Waqas Younus is still wanted in relation to the investigation.